The Goliath Effect

The Goliath effect can be found in prototypical forms in both gossip and urban legends.

I first found out about the Goliath effect while reading Jan Harold Brunvand’s study of urban legends, a specific brand of folklorology. Brunvand refers to Gary Alan Fine who writes in The Journal of American Folklore in 1985 that “a larger percentage of American legends than predicted by chance refer to the most dominant corporation or product in a particular market” and that legends that exhibit this effect by referencing market giants reflect “Americans’ fear of bigness“. We often see the central protagonist in an urban legend as a combination of unwitting victim and underdog challenger to the Goliath.

Then I came across a book called “The Feminist Critque of Language” in which Deborah Jones defined a type of gossip as “bitching” and called it the “overt expression of women?s anger at their restricted role and inferior status“. Generally manifesting as a narrative, bitching involves a specific and personal struggle with an oppressively large structure, typically a patriarchal one. Here the woman is David and a sexist culture rather than a large corporation is Goliath. Gossip shows us that cultural systems and policies can be the bad guy too, not just companies and brands.

The Goliath effect shows up more frequently in social media perhaps than in any other form of communication. On many sites (Digg, Reddit, Youtube) and in many social media savvy communities (Apple fans, Ron Paul supporters) the key motivating factor is often an us versus them approach, with the users as the underdog battling a giant corporation or politician or social structure.

In urban legends Brunvand found no evidence that competing companies were responsible for starting Goliath rumors or legends, but the possibility of that ocuring in social media is much higher due to its ease. We’ve seen a site,, use a “false flag” story against them to covertly benefit their site by publicizing a new domain name. And beyond false or directly competitive stories, obliquely or entirely unrelated sites can leverage this effect to gain links from social media. Not a day goes by that some sort of Goliath effect story makes the front page of nearly every popular social media site.

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